Two Jeeps jumping over the sand dunes on their way to attack the Germans. Two men standing in the Jeeps getting ready to fire the mounted machine guns. Dominic Frontiere’s dramatic military music playing in the background.
Okay, another World War II television show from my childhood. The Rat Patrol ran for two seasons, a 30 minute program about four soldiers in two jeeps in North Africa. Sgt. Troy and his team harassed the Germans, especially Capt. Dietrich.
Yes, the show was violent, but not gruesome, nor was it comic book fashion. Sgt. Troy and Capt. Dietrich were always trying to outsmarted each other. The one thing that was apparent in this frequent cat and mouse game was the respect the Rat Patrol and Capt. Dietrich had for each other as soldiers. The Rat Patrol and Capt. Dietrich battled nearly every week as they operated in the same theater, often with the same objectives.
Four men in two jeeps with mounted 50 caliber machine guns against tanks and armored half-tracks involved more than firepower, it took cunning, bravery and a bit of luck.
Occasionally, the Rat Patrol and the Germans found themselves on the same side, usually against unfriendly Arab forces or bandits.
The Rat Patrol starred Christopher George as Sgt. Troy who was in command. British Sgt. Moffitt, played by Gary Raymond, was second in charge. The Jeep drivers were Tully and Hitch, two Americans, played by Justin Tarr and Lawrence Casey. Capt. Dietrich was portrayed by German-born actor Hans Gudegest, who would be known as Eric Braeden, a long-term star of American daytime dramas.
There were 58 episodes produced. The series was created by writer/director Tom Gries who worked in television Westerns, detective and action shows during the 1950s and 1960s. Gries went on to work in feature films.
The basis of the series were the Allied forces in the North Africa Campaign. The Americans were new to desert fighting, the British quite a bit more experienced. The series did not push for historical accuracy, it was more entertainment focused.
The first season of the show was filmed primarily in Spain, where the look and feel seemed very authentic to the times. The second season moved to the United States where production costs were less expensive.
Subtracting time for commercials, twenty-five minutes of program time is minimal time to construct an action story. This isn’t Seinfeld, where it’s essentially dialogue. The Rat Patrol was tightly written and filmed. There wasn’t time for character exposition, history or much else.
The format involved a mission, the mission was usually underway. Typically, the Rat Patrol has to capture something, rescue something or blow something up to prevent the Germans from having it.
The mission might involve infiltrating German-held territory or even impersonating Germans. Ammo dumps, waterholes, or other valuable assets were fought over. Sometimes one of the team was wounded, captured or lost in the desert. At some point, the two Jeeps would go up against the German tanks and armor and be successful. The Rat Patrol certainly lost a number of Jeeps but the Germans lost more.
The reality in North Africa was a bit different from what was depicted on the show. Erwin Rommel proved a master strategist for Germans as he was assigned to bolster the Italians who led forces against the British Commonwealth and the Free French in Africa. The Rat Patrol battled Rommel’s forces sometime after American entered the war, which might have been in Egypt in 1942 or 1943.
So, what was the fascination with the show? The Rat Patrol was made up of brave, but moral men. These weren’t comic book characters. Christopher George as Troy, would go on to become a character actor in films and television. He was serious, brave and by passed several opportunities to kill Dietrich. It is believed that an injury suffered on this series contributed to his death a few years later.
The stories were concise and there was no fat. As a viewer you felt a lot of story packed into each episode. Yes, the Germans were the enemy, but you saw some honor by them, particularly by Capt. Dietrich, who on occasion rebelled against some evil he encountered in his own army’s leadership. According to an interview given by Braeden, the show’s producers wanted him to be less sympathetic and more of an evil Nazi. Braeden not only said no, he said, fuck no. He refused to portray a two-dimensional Nazi, wanting to continue playing a character who saw the world and the war in shades of gray.
As a kid, I liked the action, it was staged in an exciting way though the violence was real, but not excessive. The Rat Patrol were the underdogs, against the superior German amor and strength. This was the time of the North Africa Campaign where Allied progress was being made, but the Germans weren’t easily pushed out.
In the 1960s, there were television heroes in Westerns, police and detective shows, war programs, lawyer and even doctor formats. There were a few superheroes like Batman and the Green Hornet, but those were the exceptions, and included a large degree of camp. Spy shows like Get Smart! and The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and The Wild Wild West were also played for campy entertainment. Mission Impossible involved some incredible capers, but everything you saw seemed realistic, and while they may have secret agents, but they were really international law enforcement agents. My point is that 1960s kids got a heavy dose of reality and when it was played for a lighter moment, you knew it.